Tempers Flare at Sprinkler Retrofit Meeting

State fire marshal wants to mandate sprinkler systems in all residential buildings, including older high-rises

Thursday, Aug 1, 2013  |  Updated 3:42 PM CDT
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The state fire marshal has proposed a plan to improve safety in high-rise buildings, but many owners and tenants in some buildings oppose the idea because it would cost too much money. Phil Rogers reports.

The state fire marshal has proposed a plan to improve safety in high-rise buildings, but many owners and tenants in some buildings oppose the idea because it would cost too much money. Phil Rogers reports.

Backers of a state proposal to retrofit hundreds of Chicago high-rise buildings with fire-suppressing sprinkler systems were hard-pressed to find a friendly face during a Wednesday evening meeting on the issue.

Neither sprinklers nor automated return systems are currently required for pre-1975 residential high-rises in Chicago, which claims home rule authority in following its own fire codes, rather than adhering to the more stringent Illinois fire laws. The state contends their law should apply.

The proposal has prompted what can best be described as a firestorm of protest.

"These buildings are financially strapped," said Commissioner Michael Merchant with the city's Department of Buildings.

He said the city's Life Safety Evaluations are just as effective as the costly retrofits.

When Ken Wood of the Office of the State Fire Marshal was introduced at Wednesday's meeting on the Loyola University campus, the temperature of the room skyrocketed to sprinkler-worthy proportions.

"I'm willing to take the risk that I'll die in a high-rise fire rather than pay $25,000 in a special assessment for the sprinkler system that may or may not save my life," said resident Steve Koga.

The number Koga tossed around isn't new. Chicago's real estate community is rife with rumors of massive bills ranging from $35,000 to $50,000 per apartment. But the fire marshal and sprinkler contractors say those figures are ridiculously high. One contractor said the actual cost for a homeowner could be as low as $2,500 to $5,000.

Still, Rep. Greg Harris said he's never seen so much mail come into his office on a single issue.

"I've had people come into my office and literally break down in tears," he told those gathered in Cuneo Hall.

But even as city officials are fighting sprinkler retrofits in residential buildings, the city is installing sprinklers in one rather prominent building: Chicago City Hall. Asked why a system is a good idea for the mayor but not for city residents, a spokesman said that city hall is technically a commercial building. People typically have fewer choices about where they work than where they live/

A formal hearing on the issue has been scheduled for next week in Springfield.

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